Can We Really Hate Our Spouse?

Relationship Design

It is safe to say that each of us entered into married life believing that our love would last and the passion we felt would see us through any potential heartache and struggle.

This is what makes it so humbling when we discover that we do indeed have the capacity, if not tendency, to actually despise the one we love.

Perhaps this is why relationships present such paradoxes.

In the prior post about the dark side of marriage we discussed how there is an aspect of normal marital sadism found in marriage. This produced some immediate pushback from several readers.

I get it, why in the world would we take any pleasure out of hurting someone we love? Much less, admit it.

From my vantage point, this phenomenon is more widespread than many of us would like to admit. Hence the reason it can be called normal – but don’t confuse normal as healthy.

Normal Marital Sadism (as coined by Dr. David Schnarch) is a form of a particular violence that is subtle between two partners, which contrary to popular belief actually love each other, but also hate each other.

How can I say this?

Because love and hate are on the same continuum, just different extremities.

Marriage would be way simpler if we could always feel good and love towards our spouse. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case!

There will always be parts of our spouse that we will detest.

Think of it this way. We are often fast to admit that we aren’t perfect – well, neither is our spouse. It is when these imperfections (and maybe even perfections) don’t line up with our spouse’s that the differences can create important conflicts in marriage. Conflicts that are hard to find ways around or avoid – if not impossible.

  • How easy is it to truly love a spouse uninterested in sex? Or a spouse who refuses to help raise the kids? Or with housework?
  • How much struggle is there with a spouse who spends money too freely? Or too much time away?

Let me tell you this, this has as much to do with you as it does your spouse.

The way you deal with the ambivalence between the love and hate you feel towards your spouse determines greatly how your relationship will develop.

Sometimes we aren’t at our best

To better deal with the contradictory emotions it is necessary that we work to have good emotional balance. This balance will allow us to better live with the fact that not only can we sometimes despise our spouse, but also that our spouse can sometimes despise us. It’s the latter that is often the hardest to swallow – because it directly impacts our sense of self worth and identity.

How does this all play out in marriage?

Think about it this way – the more we know about our spouse, the more we are capable of really hurting them. We know their insecurities, their hot buttons, and even their fears. While we likely entered into marriage with hopes that we would soothe and help each other through life’s hardships – normal marital sadism can occur when faced with the limitations of our relationship.

Stated another way, when we don’t have a more solid sense of self and the ability to self-soothe, we can easily take our spouse’s reactions as personal attacks.

Here’s how this looks:

  1. One spouse feels hurt or emotionally injured by something their partner did or said (or even didn’t do or didn’t say)
  2. They react by attacking back to feel better about themselves (or at least to have their spouse join them in feeling hurt as well)
  3. The other spouse now feels hurt and attacks back
  4. Lather, rinse, repeat

Let’s look at a more specific example:

A high desire husband begins to feel rejected and unloved after repeated initiations for sex are denied by his wife. Each refusal of sex causes the husband to feel less and less desirable. One evening he initiates sex and again is rebuffed. Unable to handle the rejection any longer he erupts and attacks his wife stating she has a problem and is frigid. She then attacks back stating he is obsessed with sex and needs to explore the possibility that he is a sex addict. He ends the evening on the couch, she ends the evening in tears.

There are many more subtle examples found in relationships where one spouse deliberately irritates the other and gains a little satisfaction out of it – spending a large sum of money without talking with the partner, not changing the toilet paper roll, sighs of irritation, looks of disapproval, etc. It’s my belief that these behaviors aren’t done in innocent ways, even though we tend to act like they are.

They are behaviors intended to get a reaction out of our partner.

Is it time to come clean?

What’s the goal when it comes to normal marital sadism?

If what we are truly after is a more intimate connection with our spouse, then revealing our self is to only path forward.

Everything else is pseudo-connection. Confronting the dark side of our self is a move based on our integrity. It’s what creates true loyalty in marriage, and it’s the only way to build collaborative alliances with our spouse. It allows our spouse to see who we really are, the good and the bad. It also creates intimacy based on being known, not just knowing someone else.

Most of us won’t admit that we have a mean streak. We spend an inordinate amount of time denying the ugly side of our personality, so to admit its existence would hurt our self-image even more. Not to mention the fear we have of what it would do to our relationships.

But think of it this way – if we won’t acknowledge a side of us we all know we have (and have seen), what are we really offering to those we claim to love and cherish? They’ve likely seen this side of us, and my guess is they’re still hanging around. So if we can muster the courage to confront this dark side in ourselves, we will be on the doorstep of a relationship with each other we’ve yet to know, not to mention a relationship with our whole self.

Dr. Schnarch puts it this way, “Admitting the worst in us brings out the best in us, because the worst in us cannot even admit its own existence!”